Road to Infinity War – Black Panther, or, A New Hope

Oh dear God I’m done! I did it. This is the last one. Every freaking day for two and a half weeks. Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Bleed hot takes on every Marvel film onto the page! And at last, started with Iron Man and now I’m back here! Writing about Black Panther! Just like I did when it came out! Like two months ago! Anyway, I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

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I’m mistaken. It has been more than two months since the last Marvel film. Maybe there aren’t enough superhero movies?

In many ways, Black Panther is the final piece of the puzzle that Thanos is going to punch the shit out of in, like, twelve hours. The final component of the status quo, clicked into place just before the whole thing is utterly upended, bringing together many of the themes from across Marvel’s third phase of films.

Hot on the heels of Thor: Ragnarok, which saw the God of Thunder ascend to a position he had adopted a healthy wariness of, Black Panther shows us just how well-placed that wariness is as T’Challa takes up the mantle of King of Wakanda and all the headaches that position entails. That T’Challa is in such a position of power at this point in the MCU is compelling because throughout Marvel’s phase three those in power, mentors, predecessors and the like, have continually let down our heroes, be it Odin or the Ancient One withholding secret histories from Thor and Doctor Strange, or Tony Stark just not listening to little old Peter. Even T’Challa is let down by his predecessors. But only T’Challa is given the opportunity to fully wield the same position of power that has let him down.

Luckily for Wakanda, T’Challa possesses a skillset that offers a glimpse of hope for the MCU in spite of the disillusionment so many of its heroes have faced of late after the likes of Civil War and Ragnarok. As Jack Donaghy would say of any Phil Collins fan, T’Challa’s “got two ears and a heart.”

He listens. In an era within the MCU when listening and discourse fail on a global scale, they thrive in T’Challa. At the climax of Civil War, when Cap and Tony are locked in conflict beyond words and reason, T’Challa actively makes the choice to step back and listen. Literally, physically he steps away from the situation, listens and in doing so is able to reassess and rise above the machinations in play.

We watch him learn this lesson in Civil War and we see him continue to heed this lesson in Black Panther, which benefits not only T’Challa and Wakanda, but the film itself, as well as its many excellent characters. Tasked with ruling, T’Challa listens. He listens to his sister, his mother, his spy, his general, his friend, his enemy. Part of the reason Black Panther is so spectacular is T’Challa, and thus the film itself, takes the time to listen to its characters, and hearing their thoughts, ideas and fears breathes life into them and their world.

Black Panther rightfully, tactfully avoids smothering itself in the shadow of Infinity War, but as an audience member in the real world, knowing Thanos looms ahead lent a potency to the events of the film because at a time when the Avengers have been so utterly disassembled, Black Panther gives the MCU hope in a hero who rises above ideological differences, who overcomes disillusionment, who first listens, then considers and then kicks ass. Black Panther’s placement just before Infinity War is a statement that perhaps Thanos will destroy the Avengers, but the recurring themes of antagonism that have dogged our heroes thus far will not.

For some thoughts on the worldbuilding in Black Panther you can dust off this old hot take from, like, 50 days ago:

February 26, 2018: A Different Kind of Worldbuilding, or, Black Panther

I’m done! I’m a champion!

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Easy Ways and Hard Ways, or, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Decisions, decisions.

It’s startling how easy it can be to slide into lives that have been built for us without considering the lives we can build for ourselves. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is heavily concerned with the temptation to walk into a prescribed life and the struggle between that temptation and the admittedly daunting, perhaps impossible pursuit of building a life that is entirely your own.

Vol. 2 finds the Guardians more or less gelling as a unit, working odd jobs across the titular galaxy when, in the span of an hour or so, some provoked customers put them in their sights and a space weirdo with a beard (Snake Plissken) shows up claiming to be Star Lord/Peter Quill’s father. What follows is a hilarious and exciting look at the multitude of easier lives the Guardians could be living and the lives they are living, be it by choice or circumstance.

Amongst the plethora of revelations regarding Star-Lord’s past is a tailor-made life ready for Quill to slip into like a cozy leather glove. He’s given the option to leave the trials and tribulations of a space outlaw behind for a life that would, if nothing else, require substantially less effort. But the promise of an easier life is also the promise of a life far less his own.

Rocket, having essentially chosen to build a life for himself by standing around like a jackass with the rest of the Guardians in the first film, finds himself struggling with the intricacies that entails, primarily the consideration of others’ thoughts, feelings and opinions. Rocket finds his life to be anything but the stock option for a mutilated, sentient raccoon, but rising above his circumstances has proven to be a balancing act between fulfillment and responsibility, and Rocket is very much still mulling over which carries more weight to him, because at the end of the day being part of a family can be harder than being a loner.

Gamora and her sister Nebula were not only presented with prescribed lives, they were crammed into them, and they both carry the scars to prove it. Drax had built a life that, by all indications, was his own before it was destroyed. All three characters find themselves tasked with starting anew and determining not only how much energy and heart to put into a second go, but which direction to go in.

And then there’s Baby Groot (Dominic “XXX” Toretto). Not just hilarious, not just adorable, Baby Groot is essentially a blank canvas, taking queues on how to live its (?) life from these various entities all struggling to determine how they will live their own lives. Baby Groot stands on the precipice of the journey the rest of the characters are already travailing to varying degrees of success.

Most interesting, however, is the conflicted story of Yondu. In Vol. 2 we learn that Yondu’s gang, The Ravagers, are something of a redheaded stepchild to the larger, proper Ravager horde, but due to decisions in Yondu’s past he and his gang were excommunicated in disgrace. Yondu then becomes the epitome of living life your way, and he’s suffered for it, perhaps deservedly so. But the same choices that make Yondu’s life utterly his own are the ones that have made his life difficult. His is not a lot the audience is likely to find themselves yearning for. He’s denied himself the life he could have lived had he conformed with The Ravagers, and in turn he’s endured hardship, but he may have also reaped rewards far greater than he ever could have otherwise. Yondu, and Michael Rooker’s excellent performance, is at once this film’s emotional and intellectual center, a sort of living thesis statement: pursuing a life off the beaten path can be as punishing as it can be fulfilling.

With that in mind it’s no coincidence that antagonism in Guardians Vol. 2 takes the shape of The Sovereign. They’re a species of fancy gold people who take pride in being genetically designed to fulfill specific sociological needs. Their lives are determined before they are even conceived. Theirs is an antagonism that exists in an echo chamber. It’s the evil of uniformity, and of justifying the righteousness of said uniformity with numbers and might.

If the evil here is conformity and complacency, then it is also no coincidence that the film is absolutely hilarious. What is humor but the upending of expectations? What is a quip but an off-color attack on the golden status quo? Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a tale in which the villainy of homogeny can only be thwarted by the heroism of being an utter smartass.

Guardians of the Galaxy gave us a cast of lovable misfits and outcasts. Vol. 2 explores why they are misfits and outcasts not just in their own societies but in their very souls. Ultimately, it suggests that maybe that decision to seek out a different life, to become a misfit in spite of the challenges living against the grain presents, is what makes these characters heroic.